2:24 a.m. January 15, 2013

Back to Victorville, Part Two: The Prison Is Hiring

(Previously: Return to Victorville, Prologue)

It’s around 11 p.m. when I finally pull up to my McTractHome digs in the Mojave Desert, a four-bedroom house located in a cul de sac behind the city's only indoor mall. The street is poorly lit and deserted. Most of the homes—including my own—look as if they have been abandoned for years. There’s not a green lawn in sight, just clumps of dead turf and dirt.

The house is dark. No one seems to be home. I suppose my two new housemates, one of whom is also my landlord, are either out of the house or asleep.

I carry my meager belongings—a duffel bag and an inflatable mattress—from the car, and pause to look around. The air is dry, and smells of ozone. Every now and then, a gust of wind lifts the lid of a garbage can standing across the street, and slams it shut.

I’m suddenly paranoid. Someone is watching me. I’m almost relieved when a helicopter gunship appears and begins circling overhead. Nothing to see here.

In the morning my landlord—a divorced network engineer in his early 40s named Oscar—tells me there've been a couple of burglaries on the street in the last few months. His girlfriend's car was broken into.

“It’s never really been a problem here,” he says, as we stand on the front stoop drinking coffee. “But, yeah, someone broke into her car right before Christmas. She works at a lingerie shop. She had a bag from there with some gift cards. So they took it. But it never happens here. It’s a once in a blue moon kinda thing, you know?”

I nod in agreement. It’s time for some basic recon: to get a lay of the land and see what has changed in my absence.

When I first moved to out here back in 2009 to report on life in a post-bubble subprime suburb, I was sure that I was going to witness a city in collapse. It was just a matter of time—a few years, at most—before a mass exodus would transform Victorville into Mad Max territory, a scary no man's suburb with rows upon rows of rotting crumbling homes occupied by bums, snakes, meth cooks and packs of feral dogs.

I mean, who would continue to live in isolated desert suburb that has no jobs, astronomical crime rates, abandoned neighborhoods and some of the worst public schools in the state?

But not only did existing residents stay, new ones kept streaming in even after the bubble popped. The city's population grew at double the rate of the rest of California. Many of these newer residents weren't lower-income first-time homeowners, but the poorest of renters—a large number of them minorities on Section 8 vouchers—who had been forced out of other cities by rising living costs and the demolishing of public housing.

And that's what I see as I start my tour of Victorville's maze of subdivisions, freeways, strip malls, abandoned developments and isolated desert roads. It’s not collapse, but it feels very similar: slow stunted growth, combined with general decay and poverty.

The first thing I notice is that a number of smaller stores had gone out of business, while big corporate outfits have proliferated. Walmart has closed down its store in the center of town, only to reopen a much bigger, mega-Walmart just across the freeway. Both CVS and Walgreens have opened stores in newer parts of Victorville. There’s a new 7-11 where an independent gas station used to be. And a new AutoZone has opened up next door to my favorite Mexican restaurant, Los Roberto’s.

There are definitely more cops, more “Cash for Gold” outfits and more people standing on street corners in sub-zero temperatures, twirling signs for minimum wage.

A large new overpass will soon open up across Interstate 15 in the center of Victorville, and another just like it has broken ground a few miles to the south in the neighboring desert suburb of Hesperia. Another overpass is good planning for the future, but it doesn’t offer much for the people who can't afford cars. Since my last stay here, there are a lot more people trudging around town on foot, struggling against the freezing cold and icy wind.

The real estate situation has only got weirder. According to a guy who runs the best Vietnamese restaurant in Victorville, Chinese investors have been buying up foreclosed properties in vast numbers.

I assume he’s joking. "Chinese? You mean like, from China? What do they come here on their own and just wander around shopping for a dream home?" I ask.

"No, they come with their agents. They buy houses."

"What do they do with the houses? Live in them?"

"They put boards on windows. I don't know. They do nothing with them, man!" He raises his voice, annoyed that I don’t believe him.

Hordes of Chinese investors being bussed in to buy up and mothball foreclosed properties? Is this some kind of covert deal China made with the U.S. to prop up America's real estate market? Or are doing this on their own as an act of self-preservation? After all, if America goes, so does China…

Either way, Victorville's ex-military, Tea Party demographic will go hog wild when they hear about this. Last I remember, they were convinced that the 2009 swine flu vaccine was a plot by communist China to infect the precious bodily fluids of red blooded American patriots. This warrants further investigation. I will report back in due course.

More weirdness: there is a serious shortage of foreclosed homes for sale in Victorville.

That's because ever since the bubble popped, banks have kept the bulk of their foreclosures off the market, releasing them slowly in an attempt to keep property prices artificially high. This blatant manipulation of the market has actually succeeded, to the point that Victorville is in the throes of a post-subprime real estate bubble. By the end of 2012, the market was up by nearly 20 percent compared to the previous year.

Meanwhile, my old stomping ground, a subprime master-planned community on the north-west edge of town, hasn’t changed a damn.

When I moved there in 2009, Brentwood—or "Brentwoodz," as the locals called it—was half-abandoned, nothing but a row of vacant homes, dead lawns, spotty streetlight illumination and a stretch of open desert beyond. The neighborhood has definitely filled in somewhat since then, but not by much. There are plenty of empty homes, but they stand rotting in the sun, while developers built entire new subdivisions from scratch just around the corner.

A development called "Braewood at West Creek" is within walking distance of my old Brentwoodz hood. It features luxurious two-story homes equipped with three-car garages, oversized front-doors and desert landscaping. It has a quiet, upper-class suburb feel to it. New cars and lifted trucks stand parked outside the houses, and kids bike and ride their scooters in the streets. Most importantly, unlike Brentwoodz, Braewood is almost 100 percent occupied.

Braewood's developer, Woodside Homes, has already branched out deeper into the desert with a new subdivision called "Serrano," offering single-story homes starting at $150,000. At least a dozen houses have already been built, and there’s space for a few dozen more.

Who the hell is buying these damn things?

Back in 2009, when the first homes in Braeburn were being built, they were a big hit with cops and prison guards. There are three different detention centers located within a five mile radius of the developments, which made it an ideal location for correctional professional who wanted to cut down their commute times to nearly zero.

Just two blocks to the north is the massive Victorville Federal Correctional Complex, a three-in-one federal prison built in 2004 that contains one high security and two medium security “facilities." And Victorville FCC is still hiring! Annual salary starts at $38,619.00 to $51,193.00, and a job in Victorville includes a 15% "recruitment incentive."

About five miles to the west, in the neighboring town of Adelanto, are two other facilities. One is a private detention center run by GeoGroup, which has a contract with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to hold and process illegal immigrants marked for deportation. The other is a regular ol' San Bernardino County jail, which currently happens to be undergoing the biggest expansion of any jail in California that will add 1,400 beds and triple the current holding capacity. That means more cushy prison guard jobs will be coming to area very soon. Yep, the prison-industrial complex is a growth industry out here in Victorville.

And then there are the drones.

Directly across the street from the federal prison complex is the Southern California Logistics Airport (SCLA), a hybrid commercial airport and light manufacturing center that occupies most of what used to be the George Air Force Base.

This year, SCLA become the permanent base of operations for the Air National Guard’s drone fleet. I couldn't drive up to it to get visual confirmation, but indicate that from now on, north Victorville will be home to about a half-dozen MQ-9 Reapers and/or MQ-1 Predators, who will fly training missions, patrol our borders and possibly spy on post-Occupy radicals.

But the drones will have to wait. First I have to check out some weapons of a more accessible kind. The gun show is in town, and there’s an M16 with my name on it.

(Next: They've sold out of guns at the Victorville gun show. Thanks Obama!)